|Despite Abuse, He Never Lost His Faith
A Former Victim, Now a Priest, Talks about How Therapy Allowed Him to Forgive and to Help Others
March 29, 2009
The March 7 story of writer William Lobdell, "Reporting on church scandals, a writer loses his faith," inspired the accompanying letter from the Rev. John Lunness of New Castle.
For a more extensive explanation of his decision not to leave the Church, Lunness agreed to be interviewed by The News Journal's Editorial Board.
Briefly, orient us to the circumstances — your age at the time, your location, when did you tell someone and what happened to the perpetrator.
I was a 15-year-old searching for wisdom and guidance. I knew I had a vocation but I did not know any priests. Some of my peers (we were in public school), told me about a youth prayer group. I joined and the priest who was the leader was the first person to whom I revealed my vocation. This was in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Are there many more like you, who share your particular sense of personal triumph over such a life-changing event, but in this climate of outing abusers feel intimidated to talk of their personal progress?
My ability to talk about my experience has come in stages. When I first revealed it to parishioners at Holy Family Church during a daily mass celebrating St. John Bosco, I did not feel brave or empowered, just sick and scared and sad. The context was the work that John Bosco did during his life. ... He educated and took care of orphan boys. I stated that in the climate of mistrust that is enveloping the Church he would probably have difficulty living out what he had been called to.
As I progressed in my own therapy, I found it an easier subject to broach. I did become frustrated at times because so many people have no idea how devastating it is and how many aspects of life are affected by the past abuse.
What you call the media's seeming exaltation of the suffering, could also been seen as a valid effort to expose the forces that makes this abuse possible and thrive, could it not?
No. The breaking of the sexual abuse scandal, starting with Boston, was good. God tells us that things done in darkness will be brought into the light. That is a good thing. My abuse took place in the suburbs of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. In 2005 when the District Attorney's Office, headed by Lynn Abraham, released its grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse in Philadelphia, I was devastated. My abuser was named as someone who abused others also. But that report spurred me on to seek the help that I desperately needed, another good. There is a difference in reporting news and events and exploiting them.
Like many victims, do you have difficulty with a misplaced sense of shame or guilt?
I am so over that! I did, like many victims of every kind of abuse, blame myself. No one asks to be abused in any way, whether infants all the way to the elderly.
Would you say what happened to you was more of a sin, than a crime?
What was done to me and to so many others was both a sin and a crime.
You accurately portray the underpinnings of this tragedy — "Men who happened to be in charge of the Church at the time, handled the situation badly, lied, attacked victims and their families and overall were compliant in the evil perpetrated by members of the Church but not by the Church." But what should be changed at the hierarchal level to prevent this aspect of the abuse from outliving the initial harm?
I don't understand the question. The Church has been through many scandals throughout her history. The gates of hell will not prevail.
There are those who believe that the lack of marriage for priests is to blame. Obviously you don't agree, but can you appreciate the possibility of married clergy being less inclined to be so harmful?
Men going into the priesthood know what to expect. It isn't like the morning you are ordained you are told, 'By the way, you can't ever get married.' Psychologically if you are going to abuse, it does not matter if you are married or not. I'm sure you are aware of the numerous men and women who were sexually abused by their own fathers.
Can you describe what is — or was the toughest aspect — of abuse to overcome?
There were things that I found universal for everyone who has been abused in any way. The ability to trust others is destroyed. Anger, anger and more anger, and most of the time it is unfocused anger, and the pathological need to be in control, although you never feel like you are in control of anything. Try to go through life with these handicaps ... it is not easy.
Much of your vocation is tied to asceticism, including specifically abstaining from sex. This is a level of human denial that is an extraordinary accomplishment. Given your experience as a victim of sexual abuse and the public exposure of these cases, how do you persuade young men that yours is still a valid vocation?
This is only my opinion, I repeat, only my opinion. You either have a vocation to the priesthood or you don't. If you have a vocation to the priesthood then no matter what happens, no matter how messy it gets, you keep pursuing that goal. God promises us peace not an easy life.
Have you forgiven your abuser? And if so what do you mean by forgiven? Better yet, is it possible to forgive, while experiencing the anguish of the violation?
I wasn't angry at my abuser until I really understood through therapy what actually happened ... meaning all the other aspects of my life that this corrupted. I have forgiven him, although we won't be going to lunch any time soon.
The ability to forgive is a product of copious amounts of prayer, a great deal of understanding of how I was affected by all this and the decision that I don't want to live a bitter, angry and isolated life. My therapist says it very well, "You have a right to join the human race."
What essentially did Grief to Grace offer you that is lacking in other outreach or counseling services?
People who have been sexually abused often feel like they are alone and abuse is unique to their situation. Going on a Grief to Grace retreat you see that isn't true. So many of the people I have come in contact with endured incest mostly by fathers, but also mothers and brothers. Home is supposed to be a safe place. The Church is supposed to be a safe place. For so many people they are not.
Grief to Grace is based on the passion of Christ; suffering, death and resurrection. The retreat takes you through those stages, uniting your own suffering with Christ's suffering. There is a heavy living scripture component when retreatants are invited into the scripture. To get a more detailed and accurate account you need to get in contact with Dr. Theresa Burke, the founder. Go to www.grieftograce.org. Grief to Grace does not replace counseling. I still go to counseling.
Once victims achieve such personal success, is there a risk that it allows some Church defenders or apologists to diminish the significance of the pain that's been done?
Quite honestly, they have been doing that all along.
Does a victim ever get over something like this kind of abuse?
No, you never get over it, but you can incorporate it into your life in a positive way. When I got better (although that is an ongoing process) and felt good about myself and my life, I felt compelled to help others who have suffered sexual abuse and feel as crappy as I did. I want them all to feel as good as I do now.
Was there a crystal-ball moment when you decided that rage wasn't the best solution?
Rage is so negative. Why live in the negative?
What is it about your faith specifically that helps you to move forward?
I never blamed God. Free will, a gift from God, makes people sometimes choose to do the wrong thing. Our faith should not be in priests, ministers, each other. We will always be disappointed because only God is perfect. Even in all the mess that was my life, (and trust me I barely scratched the surface), I knew God was there. I didn't understand a lot of it but God didn't cause me the pain of sexual abuse and all of its fallout. God helped me through it all.
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